Will White People Go to the National Black Museum?
The Smithsonian's new national black museum hasn't integrated Washington, D.C.'s whitest address yet, and it's already dodging spitballs from Congress.
Never mind that the National Museum of the American Indian, as well as the Museum of American History and the National Museum of African Art, for that matter, regularly draw crowds of all races. Still, as the new National Museum of African American History and Culture prepares to open on the Mall in 2015, the challenges and successes of the Anacostia Museum may be instructive. The new museum, led by Lonnie Bunch, will fight for scarce public and private resources and respect. It will fight for collections that could arguably belong in the Museum of American History and other "mainstream" institutions. It will battle the stubborn questions, from black people and white people alike, about why history must be segregated.
But unlike the beautiful Anacostia Community Museum, which is safely out of sight for the most part, the symbolism of the new museum will be impossible to ignore. In addition to usual questions about black worth and legitimacy, it will carry the additional burden of integrating our nation's most elite historic neighborhood.
The eminent cultural historian Fath Davis Ruffins chronicled the decades of fits and starts of establishing a black museum on the Mall in a 1998 article in the Radical History Review. Ruffins pointed out that historians have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to fully documenting the black experience. For centuries, black historic documents and artifacts have been largely discarded or passed down to descendents and often lost to history.
To wit: Years ago, I wrote a Washington Post article that mentioned the existence of a diary of a Maryland slave named Adam Plummer that historians believed was lost to history. One of his descendants, living in Maryland, read my article and came forward with the diary of perhaps the only real-time accounts of a slave life, written by a slave beginning in 1841. She promptly pulled it out of her attic, and eventually donated the diary to the Anacostia Community Museum, which has marshaled the considerable resources of the Smithsonian Institution to preserve and guard it like the Constitution. (Plumgood Productions has done a short documentary about the discovery of the diary.)